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Paleobotany (from the Greek words paleon = old and botanikos = of herbs) is the branch of paleontology dealing with the recovery and identification of plant remains from geological contexts, and their use in the reconstruction of past environments and the history of life. A closely related field is palynology, the study of fossil and extant spores and pollen. Paleobotany includes the study of terrestrial plant fossils, as well as the study of marine autotrophs, such as algae.

Paleobotany is important in the reconstruction of prehistoric ecological systems and climate, known as paleoecology and paleoclimatology respectively, and is fundamental to the study of plant development and evolution. Paleobotany has also become important to the field of archaeology, primarily for the use of phytoliths in relative dating and in paleoethnobotany,

Overview of the Paleobotanical Record

Macroscopic remains of true vascular plants are first found in the fossil record during the Silurian Period. Some dispersed, fragmentary fossils of disputed affinity, primarily spores and cuticles, have been found in rocks from the Ordovician Period of Oman and are thought to derive from liverwort- or moss-grade fossil plants (Wellman et. al., 2003).

An important early land plant fossil locality is the Rhynie Chert, an Early Devonian sinter (hot spring) deposit composed primarily of silica found outside the town of Rhynie in Scotland.
Rhynie chert

An unpolished hand sample of the Lower Devonian Rhynie Chert from Scotland.

The Rhynie Chert is exceptional due to its preservation of several different clades of plants, from mosses and lycopods to more unusual, problematic forms. Many fossil animals, including arthropods and arachnids, are also found in the Rhynie Chert, and it offers a unique window on the history of early terrestrial life.

Plant-derived macrofossils become abundant in the Late Devonian and include tree trunks, fronds, and roots. The earliest tree is Archaeopteris, which bears simple, fern-like leaves spirally arranged on branches atop a conifer-like trunk (Meyer-Berthaud et. al., 1999).

Widespread coal swamp deposits across North America and Europe during the Carboniferous Period contain a wealth of fossils containing arborescent lycopods up to 30 meters tall, abundant seed plants, such as conifers and seed ferns, and countless smaller, herbaceous plants.

Angiosperms (flowering plants) evolved during the Mesozoic, and flowering plant pollen and leaves first appear during the Early Cretaceous, approximately 130 million years ago.

Notable Paleobotanists

Paleobotany Textbooks

Stewart, W.N. and Rothwell, G.W. 1993. Paleobotany and the evolution of plants, Second edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 0-521-38294-7

Taylor, T. N. and E. L. Taylor. 1993. The Biology and Evolution of Fossil Plants, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA. ISBN 0-13-651589-4

External links

References

  • Brigitte Meyer-Berthaud, S.E. Scheckler, J. Wendt, "Archaeopteris is the Earliest Modern Tree." Nature, 398, 700-701 (22 April 1999) | doi:10.1038/19516
  • Charles H. Wellman, Peter L. Osterloff and Uzma Mohiuddin, "Fragments of the Earliest Land Plants." Nature, 425, 282-285 (18 September 2003) | doi: 10.1038/nature01884

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